Well, Taegan seems to be learning quite a bit about movie adaptation from our little Mary Poppins unit. Since we watched the Disney film version a couple of weeks ago, she has noted several differences between the book and the movie. This is typical: she often quietly observes something and then brings up its various aspects over the course of the next several weeks or even months, continually thinking through the issues raised by the occurrence. Soon after we watched the film, for instance, she expressed her disappointment that John and Barbara don’t appear in the movie. (I think the scene in which the babies talk to a bird was her favorite in the book!) Several days later, she commented that while the book said that Mary Poppins is plain, in the movie she is very pretty. And yesterday she announced, in what seemed like utter indignation, “In the movie, Mary Poppins says that she is never cross, but in the book she is cross all the time!” Indeed, Mary Poppins, the movie, is frustratingly dissimilar to the book.
This is not news to the critics, who have thoroughly outlined all the ways that Disney changed the story (much to the dismay of PL Travers, according to a great article in a 2005 issue of The New Yorker, which reports on the author’s lengthy negotiations with Disney and her troubled response to the film). As Donald Levin points out after citing many of the differences between the book and the film, “the entire narrative line of the Disney movie is fabricated” (116). Most interesting to me, of course, are the drastic differences between the portrayal of Mrs. Banks in the book and her depiction in the film. Mrs. Banks plays a very minor role in Travers’s version, merely peeking into the nursery every once in a while to check on how the children are faring with Mary Poppins. She is also a static character, just as uninvolved in her children’s care—and as committed to the notion of utilizing a nanny—at the end of the novel as she is at the beginning. In the film, though, Winifred Banks starts out as a committed suffragist who marches in support of votes for women and condones the throwing of eggs at Winston Churchill. At the end of the movie, however, Winifred is transformed into a model mother, using her suffragist sash, so dear to her at the movie’s opening, as a tail for the children’s kite. She is thus depicted as putting aside her rallies and controversial ideals in order to return to the nursery upon Mary Poppins’s departure. In the end, then, the film restores the Banks household to its rightful order, with Mrs. Banks as the primary caretaker of the children.
Of course, in this way, Disney’s 1964 Mary Poppins says more about its own historical moment than life in a British household in either the 1930s, when the book was set, or the 1910s, when the story in the film is supposed to take place. As Anne McLeer points out, roles for middle-class women were beginning to change in the 1960s, but many Americans were nostalgic for the romanticized nuclear family of the 1950s (4). The film, therefore, works to contain anxieties surrounding the fact that women were more and more often seeking fulfillment outside of the home by “bolster[ing] the ideal American family structure of breadwinning father, stay-at-home mother, and children” (McLeer 5).
My question is this, then: if Mrs. Banks’s characterization demonstrates a cultural response to the increasing empowerment of women in the 1960s, what will her characterization in the theatrical version—which opened on Broadway in 2006 and has experienced continued financial success for the past four years—tell us about how we feel about women and motherhood today? Stay tuned. I will report back after we see the musical on June 6th. And I’ll let you know what Taegan has to say about how Mary Poppins’s demeanor—supposed to be haughty and “cross,” according to the book—comes across in the play.
Bibliographic Note: Critics have discussed Winifred Banks’s characterization extensively. See Caitlin Flanagan and Lori Kenschaft in addition to McLeer.
Flanagan, Caitlin. “Becoming Mary Poppins: PL Travers, Walt Disney, and the Making of a Myth.” The New Yorker. 19 Dec. 2005 (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/19/051219fa_fact1). 26 May 2010.
Kenschaft, Lori. “Just a Spoonful of Sugar? Anxieties of Gender and Class in Mary Poppins. Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children's Literature and Culture. Ed. Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. 227-42.
Levin, Donald. “The Americanization of Mary: Contesting Cultural Narratives in Disney’s Mary Poppins.” Fantasy Fiction into Film: Essays. Ed. Leslie Stratyner and James R. Keller. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. 115-23.
Mary Poppins. Dir. Robert Stevenson. Perf. Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke. Walt Disney Studios, 1964.
McLeer, Anne. “Practical Perfection? The Nanny Negotiates Gender, Class, and Family Contradictions in 1960s Popular Culture.” NWSA Journal 14.2 (2002): 80-101.